A Journey Through Madison's Classical Music Scene
Mar 18, 2013
11:47 PM
Classically Speaking

An Operatic Valentine on St. Patrick’s Day

An Operatic Valentine on St. Patrick’s Day

Pietro Mascagni—like his contemporary, Ruggero Leoncavallo of "Pagliacci" fame—had the misfortune of being labeled a "one-hit wonder," operatically speaking. His "Cavelleria rusticana" was an overnight sensation in 1890, and although L’amico Fritz achieved quasi-repertoire status in Italy, Mascagni never again topped the charts.

But the "Cherry Duet" from Fritz is often heard, and as that was all I had ever encountered of the opera, I was particularly excited to take in the University Opera staging of L’amico Fritz on Sunday afternoon. Director William Farlow had said in a recent interview that he selected it as he selects all the operas for the company: a work best suited for his singers.

The operatic cynic might say that the reason Fritz doesn’t fully succeed is that it breaks too many operatic rules: not only is the stage not littered with corpses by the final curtain, no one dies of a crime of passion or some mysterious disease; in fact, everyone appears to live happily ever after. The characters are not two-dimensional caricatures but rather folks that are almost too ordinary. The work is tuneful, but rarely soars; the story touching, but lacking in compelling drama.

But Farlow was right—the opera does show off his singers to fine advantage, starting with the estimable Shannon Prickett. As she has in other recent productions, Prickett continues to impress ever more consistently with a rich soprano that she seems to produce effortlessly, certainly within the relatively intimate confines of the Music Hall. She possesses enough stage craft to offer a believable lass of demure modesty who slowly develops a passion for the title character. (She reprises the role in Tuesday night’s performance).

Fritz, for the Sunday performance only, was Aldo Perrelli. He too, seems to have grown modestly but steadily in vocal stature, producing a good balance with Prickett in the big moments. He does need to work on creating a more natural fluidity in his actions, but the voice is clear and assured to this point, and after all, first things first.

The story revolves around the wealthy landowner, Fritz, who scoffs at romantic love, yet is quick to lavish generosity on other young couples who can’t afford a dowry, etc. His rabbi, David, contends that Fritz will be married sooner rather than later, and proves to be a manipulative, but gentle catalyst to bring about that eventuality.

Rabbi David is Jordan Wilson, authentic looking (although one would expect a 19th-century rabbi to wear a yarmulke all the time), and offering a vocal instrument of good expressiveness and the sensitivity to know how far to push it.

The other role of significance is that of Beppe, a "trousers role" for a mezzo-soprano. Beppe is a gypsy violinist befriended by Fritz (he also appears to provide for a number of rather mature looking orphans). Beppe’s entrance is to an extended violin solo, and some deft staging allowed us to suspend disbelief that Lindsay Metzger (who also appears again on Tuesday) was really fiddling around, while enjoying the playing of concertmaster Ben Seeger.

Speaking of the orchestra, James Smith did a sensitive job of molding phrases and coaxing colors from a more cohesive and responsive orchestra than heard in other University Opera productions; the woodwinds particularly were noteworthy in their contributions.

The sets and costumes were colorful and charming, and if aspects of the direction seemed static here and there, that has far more to do with the work itself than with Farlow’s direction. In fact, too much busy-ness would have been jarring. It was also appreciated that the original three-act structure was shaped into two, with a single intermission.

So put aside any notions of treachery, jealousy beyond the pale or histrionic singing. L’amico Fritz is more of a barometer of where University Opera’s young artists are than a rediscovery of some neglected near-masterpiece. But I will confess: I’m glad I finally got a chance to see it. You've got one on Tuesday night.

Photo: Shannon Prickett and Aldo Perrelli, courtesy of Brent Nicastro.

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About This Blog

Years before I contributed my first classical review to the Los Angeles Times in 1988, I started a class in music appreciation for adults that had one aim: to put a few cracks in the “ivory tower elitism” I found pervasive in the classical music world since my boyhood days. Whether as a critic, program annotator or band director, that goal has never changed. After all, Mozart and Beethoven and the gang wrote their music for people like you—not critics or professors!

After growing up in the suburbs of New York City, and spending twenty years in and around Los Angeles, the last twelve years here leave me more amazed than ever at the musical riches of Madison. I’m a cheerleader at heart, because I always think more people would become classical fans if they’d give it a chance—but I’m also quick to tell you when you’re not getting your money’s worth. Classically Speaking brings you as much news and as many reviews as possible, and I hope you’ll join me for a fabulous musical journey.

–  Greg Hettmansberger
Follow Greg on Twitter @ghettmansberger

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